Yglesias for “liberal” on historical grounds, Bowers for “progressive” based on marketing concerns.  Read, ponder, return.

I prefer “liberal” as a self-definition.  Two concepts are inherent in the word – liberty, for the individual; and generosity, individually and as a society – and these are concepts which have been much-neglected in this country for … well, for always, in some ways.  A useful reminder to myself and others.  These are not simple ideas, and people can and will disagree about what they mean and how they should be applied, but that’s life.  It is complicated, most of the time.  And that’s another thing that’s worth acknowledging – there’s the old joke about the liberal being the guy who won’t take his own side in the argument, which is at least half half-true: the liberal should try to understand and appreciate all valid positions, and not expect reality to line up with one’s preconceptions.  (Be “reality-based“, if you will.)  This is an attitude which shares a lot with conservatism, as properly defined – as opposed to modern radical-right “(neo-)conservatism” – or a bit like Sully’s exciting new “conservatism of doubt“, only without the lucrative decades of eroticized infatuation with powerful scumbags.  It’s an admittedly dangerous attitude in a world where Liberal Fascism is presented as some sort of meaningful political statement, and where so much money and effort is spent ensuring that our political debate is thick with purest horseshit, to which I can only caution: above all, don’t be a fucking chump.

I don’t care for “progressivism” for a couple of reasons.  The first is the reason Bowers likes it – it polls well.  Of course it polls well.  Nobody’s going to identify themselves as a “regressive”.  Chocolate candy rainbows poll well, too, I’d wager.  I’d prefer a self-definition a bit more substantive, and possibly confrontational, than “a desire to make things better”.  Maybe that’s a dumb reason, but it’s mine and I like it.  So there.

A possibly better reason: the idea of “progress” in society is much like the idea of “progress” in evolution – one starts with primitive, disgusting cannibalistic jellythings and, through the implacable forces of Natural/Historical Selection, one approaches some Omega point: becoming angelic Star Children, perhaps, or having the state whither away to some sort of glorious ponyarchy.  The problem with this idea is that it’s dumb.  Newer isn’t necessarily better, and solutions which are elegant in one time and place (human beings/liberal democracy) are hopeless in other settings (the bottom of the ocean/Iraq).  Over time more complex structures become possible, but that’s doesn’t imply desireable.  Perhaps this is reading too much into one word, and I’m not suggesting people who call themselves “progressives” hold any specific Marxist or otherwise deterministic views of history, but there’s a sense of unquestionable rightness in the term, too optimistic, not sufficiently agnostic.  Again, that’s me.

But the more important thing is that “we” don’t have to agree to define ourselves one way, because we are all individuals.  And that’s OK (such a liberal attitude)!  It seems to me that there are some substantive differences between people who prefer “liberal” and people who prefer “progressive”.  It might be useful to understand, rather than paper over, these differences.  And if we’re looking for a blanket descriptive term, I think “social democrat” is about right (if I read European politics correctly, which is not a given.)

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